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What I Learned About The Ugly Side Of Tourism While On A Vacation In Bali

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By Nupur Saraswat:

When I found myself running away from a group of scrawny Balinese men at 5 A.M. on an unlit January morning, I understood the ugly side of tourism. The day before, my boyfriend and I had decided to scale the height of Mt. Batur in Bali, one of the world’s most beautiful active volcanoes. We wanted to be able to catch the promisingly breathtaking sunrise from the top. Lonely Planet said that we didn’t need a guide or a professional trekker with us; the climb was short and fairly easy. We arrived at the tiny village where the trailhead was located. The village was peculiar in the way that everybody had an inadequate side business which clearly didn’t support their families. Their main income seemed to come from the tourists. The whole village was sustained on tourism.

Bali tourism

“Are you going trekking on Batur?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a guide?”

“No, we don’t need one.”

“Oh but you can’t go alone. The community won’t let you.”

This was the scope of the conversations we had with every stranger that approached us. Though we never found out what this “community” was, we soon found out what it represented. This tiny village had a tiny secret – the location of the trailhead of Mt. Batur. And they had one simple rule – no tourist would trek on this mountain without paying an obnoxious amount to have a local man accompany them on this 45 minute long walk. We were lucky to have found the trailhead, but as we had predicted, it was guarded. These men kept insisting that it was in fact a government policy to not trek this mountain without a local tour guide. It was not. And being hassled this way, we decided that no matter what, we were not paying them for a service we didn’t need. It was no longer just about money, it was about not caving in to some “community”. The argument between the tour guides and us soon turned sour, they made it very clear that they’d not “allow” us to go up the mountain alone. My boyfriend wanted to find out how they were going to prevent us; I decided it was time to run. We did see the sunrise that day but in silence, with an unspoken bitterness. We met a South African couple on the way back, who referred to the people we had just dealt with as the “village mafia”. I didn’t believe that it was a mafia-run village. But I did believe that their tourism driven economy was making them do anything for the tourist Rupiah.

We explored the rest of Bali – all depths of it. And in the process, we found an island where beauty came at a cost, where nature had a price tag. We found priests who prayed for a show, we found farmers who farmed for agro tourism, and we found traditions kept alive just to entertain us. We found a place where you could find your inner self for a few dollars with the help of the “Inner Peace tutor”. We found a 15-year-old girl at a massage parlour who had left her village because enough tourists didn’t come to her village, and had moved to the largest city in Bali. We found a beautiful island doting on us to come on down because if we didn’t, they’d have no other way to feed their families. That serene winter, we found the ugly side of tourism.

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  1. Vikram Singh

    Although I agree it’s a wrong thing for them to do on moral grounds but, you shouldn’t really crib about paying money to village folk. They are living in much more poverty than you and I. I don’t mean to judge you but if you can afford a round trip by air to Bali then you sure can pay the poor villager to show you around. And always find a guide to take you no matter how easy the trek might be, you’ll never get lost and he will learn some interesting things along the way. Trust me it’s worth it. If you’re short on funds then some polite bargaining almost always works 🙂
    All the things you stated in your last para are very general problems associated with capitalism and our beloved monetary system. Future tellers and spiritual healers are found all over the world even in India. People leaving their homes to go and earn a living in the cities, etc.
    I’m not saying that you’re not making valid points, you’re just being too hurt/disappointed about it. So next time when in rome, do as romans do!

    1. Vikram Singh

      You* will learn some interesting things

  2. Chandana

    Their entire livelihood depends on how much tourists pay. I don’t think you should complain as long as you can afford it

  3. Suraj

    Enlightening narrative! I’ve seen entire villages & towns depend solely on tourism. In the absence of tourists, they find themselves unable to meet ends. I remember a trip to a hill station where a half a kilometre horse-ride cost ₹200. My father, instead of bargaining, paid the full amount. When asked why he didn’t bargain, said that was the only month they earned anything at all…

    1. Jonathan Old

      I agree with Vikram – making money is the least problem of tourism. Criminality always goes hand in hand with poverty and the opportunity to make money.
      And actually you don’t need to look at Bali to find these problems: the huge devastation of the environment, urban-rural biases, crime, the monetarisation of traditions and culture – all of that can be found in India, too.

  4. Aditi

    I have travelled to 25+ countries mostly in the developing world. I have met those same people everywhere. Interestingly, I never thought it was unjust for the locals to play active role in tourism. Next time have a chat with them, share a meal at their humble home. They see the world through the tourists and make some money but unless it's harassment in real sense, a guide anywhere is wonderful. You will not only see the sunrise and Instagram it, you will hear some stories from their daily mundane village life that can connect you to a new culture, different way of life and build memories , maybe not for facebook, Twitter , likes and comments alone

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